Ottawa hospitals pushing for satellite sites in retirement homes

Hospitals in Ottawa are asking the Ontario government to quickly approve plans to create hundreds of new long-term care and transitional beds at local retirement homes in order to free up space for acute-care patients.

Both The Ottawa Hospital and the Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital have applied to the Ontario government to set up satellite operations that would allow for the potential transfer of hundreds of non-acute patients currently occupying hospital beds.

"COVID has become kind of that springboard for us to take these initiatives forward, probably sooner than ever," said Peggy Taillon, vice-president of communications at the Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital.

What we're facing now is catastrophically unsafe levels of care and overcrowding in our hospitals unless something is finally done to deal with a lack of capacity. - Natalie Mehra, Ontario Health Coalition

Bruyère's plan for 110 new long-term care beds requires approval from the Ministry of Long-Term Care. The Ottawa Hospital's proposal for 146 transitional beds will need the blessing of the Ministry of Health.

Meanwhile, the Queensway Carleton Hospital has already taken over a Kanata hotel with capacity for up to 35 alternative level of care (ALC) beds, to be fully staffed by hospital personnel.

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

Waiting in 'limbo'

At the moment, about 630 hospital patients in eastern Ontario fall into the ALC category.

Close to half are waiting for a nursing home bed, according to the Ontario government, while others require rehab, palliative care, mental health treatment, home-care support or other services, but don't require an expensive acute-care hospital bed.

As of the end of June, all hospitals in Ottawa were operating close to or at 100 per cent capacity.

That's despite the fact that COVID-19 isolation measures have kept the spread of all kinds of other community infections low, while some hospital operating rooms are still performing only a small portion of the surgeries they'd normally be doing.

"What we're facing now is catastrophically unsafe levels of care and overcrowding in our hospitals unless something is finally done to deal with a lack of capacity," said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition.


'Best news ... in a long time'

The coalition, which advocates for the protection and improvement of the public health-care system, said the proposals to add beds in Ottawa is a great first step.

"I think it's the best news that I've heard in a long time," Mehra said.

However, she said she'd prefer to see provincial governments create more nursing home and hospital beds "systematically," based on needs assessments.

Taillon believes the emergence of COVID-19 has actually broken down "barriers" to make these measures possible.

"I do feel like there's a strong willingness from the government at all levels: both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Long-Term Care to really work together to solve these problems and find a way, once and for all, to address these issues," Taillon said.

Bruyère, which already runs nursing homes in the region, hopes to eventually build a new 244-bed facility in the city.

Over at The Ottawa Hospital, chief of staff Dr. Virginia Roth says all hospitals in the region are together seeking "creative options."

While Roth won't say which retirement residence her hospital has partnered with to submit the application, she said she's hopeful the ministry will embrace the plan for the satellite site.

"I prefer to hold the further details until we get approval ... but it's somewhere I would want my parent or grandparent to be cared for," Roth said.

Simon Lasalle/CBC
Simon Lasalle/CBC

Hospital in a hotel

The Queensway Carleton hospital, which is currently operating at 100 per cent capacity, retrofitted a Kanata hotel in April to take its overflow of ALC patients, none of whom were COVID-19-positive.

At the hospital's Fairfield Inn site, hospital staff are currently caring for 18 patients, but it can accommodate nearly twice that number.

"We really have to work on doing different things to help out with the crunch of beds in the long-term care and the wait-list," said Christine Cercena, clinical manager at the Fairfield Inn.

The hotel site was only intended to operate until September, but "the use of alternative health facilities beyond September 30 is under consideration," according to the Ministry of Health in an email to CBC.

The Ontario Health Coalition worries about what could happen if new hospital and long-term beds don't appear soon.

"As people are not social distancing anymore, as we have an even more severe shortage of long-term care beds, as hospitals try to ramp up elective surgeries and treatments, it's just a recipe for disaster," Mehra warned.